Dakini Power: Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West

When I first became a Buddhist, and did so within Tibetan Buddhism, I got a few emails (from men!) warning me that I had entered a patriarchal movement. They were not wrong, though my teacher seems (while himself male) pretty good at giving his female students the same opportunities as his male students. In fact, the most prominent of his students are female and not a breath of scandal has touched him.

Personally I decided pretty early that while my personal choice of teacher would be dependent on quality not gender, I did not see how the central teachings had anything less to say to me, merely because some (or even many) of it’s exemplars were male.

A few years on my basic stance hasn’t changed, but I do realize just how much it matters to have female roll models, which is why I bought this book as soon as I became aware of it.

This is one of those dharma books that you just can’t read all at once. Not because it isn’t well written – it is – but because each story is so touching that you need some time to digest it before moving on to the next.

I am new to meditation, new to Buddhism as a practice, and these women are trailblazers. They are, as each current Buddhist teacher teaching in ‘The West’ is, pioneers. However, women who teach Buddhism today are pioneers in another way as well: they are women in a tradition that has in the past limited the scope of women in spiritual attainment and education. And yes, as this book shows, women are still at a disadvantage in Tibetan Buddhism, though the gap seems to be getting smaller. For instance, six nuns in Karma Lekshe Tsomo has six nuns in her nunnery that are ready to become geshes*. The only reason they are not yet geshes, is because they are not fully ordained nuns, because the full ordination has died out in Tibetan Buddhism. Some Western nuns have taken full ordination in a Chinese lineage, but that route is only open to those who have the money.

Feminism is a bad word, in some circles, probably because it’s associated with anger. Each of the women Michaela Haas interviewed had limitations put on their practice and learning because they are women. However, as the advanced practitioners they are, they are not angry. Some of them are outspoken and feel strongly that changes need to be made. Others feel it’s up to each individual to make what use they can of the opportunities they have. But none of them resort to anger. Instead they simply light the way, and make it easier for women who come after them.

It is hardly possible for me to share all I loved about this book. There are the references to more books about strong women in Buddhism, which have been made available on the website dedicated to the project as well: http://www.dakinipower.com/

As the author shares in her Preface, she started the book when after two decades of study and meditation she found herself struggling with the clash between Tibetan culture and modernity. It’s a familiar struggle, one that any westerner will recognize who is serious about Tibetan Buddhism as a path. Because this book came out of that struggle, it is as much about that clash as it is about women in dharma.

Personally I think it ads to the book, and probably makes it more interesting for men as well. After all, we can’t just become Tibetan Buddhists – though many try. We can follow the advice given by Mayum Tsewang Palden (who is given only a small place in this book) who says to Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel (quote):

Dear, you don’t have to try to be a Tibetan. You don’t have to be an American. Just know your own mind.

In fact, I liked her chapter a lot. Elizabeth also says:

It is like an unspoken rule that we don’t talk about our doubts or unresolved questions, and I question that.

This book can be read as an overview of what is wrong in Tibetan Buddhism today, or as an inspiration for women to achieve what they can within their circumstances. I hope the effect will be double: by honestly looking at the inequality still present in the system, the book may help quicken the resolve on these issues. At the same time I am taking it as a reminder just how deeply women too can realize the dharma.

Reviews on Amazon are generally positive, but a few people seem to take the messenger for the message. Yes, there are problems, but that doesn’t make a book announcing those problems a bad book.

All in all, I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who can handle a truth that is neither black nor white. There is a myth of a swan that can take the milk from the water, and each of us has to try as well, if we want to seriously transform our lives.

* Geshe is a degree in the Gelugpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. It takes 12 years of study and is, as such, comparable to a PHD.

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